From creative placemaking to "stewardship" for future wellbeing: the anti-academic turn. #AAG2016

From creative placemaking to "stewardship" for future wellbeing: the anti-academic turn. #AAG2016

There have been a couple of reviews of the session in which my paper was one amongst many.  I am a little disturbed by the blog post "Beyond creative placemaking: the wellbeing of future generations" by Julian Dobson from Urban Pollinators: a profit-making company that specialises in "regeneration and placemaking".  Whilst his blog post does not name any of the paper authors, it is clearly critical of the position taken up by a number of the session presenters, including my own.  I therefore feel a brief response is needed to clarify my position.

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Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification #AAG2016 PowerPoint & Filmed Presentation

Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification #AAG2016 PowerPoint & Filmed Presentation

I've just shared my full paper from the Association of American Geographers Conference here but I thought some people might like to see the PowerPoint with notes or rather, I would recommend, the film with me presenting my paper.  (I presented it virtually, so this is exactly as the audience saw and heard it at the conference.)

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ARTLAND: Flagship arts & culture for some, catastrophic cuts for everyone else #Budget2016

ARTLAND: Flagship arts & culture for some, catastrophic cuts for everyone else #Budget2016

Oh, look: "Good news" for the (implicitly neoliberal) "Creative Industries"!  MORE NEW BUILDINGS!

[Sounds of corks popping.]

Hang on a minute, isn't there a big fiscal black hole that needs filling?  Not to worry, that's not Art's burden.  Not Art that's part of UK's world dominating Creative Industries (and I mean that in an Imperialistic colonising sense, of course).

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What Next for North East arts & culture? Democracy NOT technocracy

WP_20151211_14_12_09_Pro I went along to What Next? Newcastle Gateshead's The future of culture in the North East: What, Who, When? event at Dance City in Newcastle last Friday (11th December 2015).  I have been attending some of their weekly meetings and have felt that, like the North East Cultural Partnership, the agendas are always set and dominated by large arts institutions.  The afternoon's events led me from optimism (at Chi Onwurah's honest and engaging opening speech) to sarcasm to disappointment to angry dejection.  This blog is a brief attempt at a catharsis of sorts.

Let's quickly frame proceedings.

The event was described as follows:

How culture is thought about and delivered regionally and nationally is undergoing profound changes.  It is a crucial time to understand what these changes are, who is responsible for them and what they will mean.

What Next? Newcastle Gateshead has invited key regional and national policy makers to share their perspectives on the future of cultural policy, programmes, structures and resources in the North East.

What Next? Newcastle Gateshead’s The future of culture in the North East: What, Who, When? offers everyone working in or interested in culture in the region the opportunity to learn more and consider the future together.

Quite clearly a policy-heavy meeting then.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Depends how such an event is curated and how capable the speakers are at addressing a mixed audience that included many non-policy wonks or arts management geeks.  Oh, and there were artists there too; quite a lot of artists.

The event also had a strong focus on the impacts of impending regional devolution on arts and culture.

At the start of the event we were told that the eight speakers would each talk for 10 minutes with breaks at appropriate moments.  I think that must have meant breaks because the event proceeded non-stop into what quickly became a barrage of tedious presentations interspersed with pre-selected "questions" mainly delivered by people from "senior" positions within the local arts and culture sector.

The exception was Chi Onwurah, the first speaker, local Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Culture.  Chi was down-to-earth and honest about the role of policy and (perhaps more pertinently) politics within both local and national situations.  She was critical of Tory cuts to local government and emphasised the need for a rebalancing of funding.  She also seemed to recognise that there must be a balance between big name cultural attractions and grassroots cultural activities for everyone.  'I've never been a culture professional,' she said at the start of her talk.  Hurray - thank goodness!  (I thought.)

The rest of the presentations were from the DCMS, CCS, ACE, Heritage Lottery, NECP, NECA, NELEP.  Look them up.  I won't describe each presentation as that's not the point of this post.  Let's just say that it was pretty much (although in the cases of Pauline Tambling and Jane Tarr not entirely) text book stuff.

So what was wrong?  Well, for me, the future of culture in the North East can be summed up as NOT THIS - something far less bureaucratic and at times dictatorial!

Now my own feelings (perhaps a rant of sorts)...

The event was, for me (and many other artists, freelancers and Artists Union England members present), a very difficult experience; akin to ACE RFO/ local council meetings of 10 years ago.  What Next? Newcastle Gateshead for some unknown reason constructed one of the worst conference formats I've ever known and the speakers (excepting Chi) were dismal to the point of embarrassing.  They lacked contexts outside of their own fields of "expertise", completely failed to provide any provocations or critical thinking or theoretical backgrounds or arguments.  The summing up at the end was simply belittling, biased and incorrect.  Some responses to questions were deeply arrogant and dismissive to the point of offensiveness.  We (the audience) had little chance to interact other than with the panel at the end.

This could have been so different.  A chance to open up discussions about potentialities where new ideas could be proposed and disagreements aired.  Policy can be interesting but this bombardment reinforced the gulf between many of those who "make" policy "for" others and the rest who are all too often forced to comply.

Instead, this event revealed the divide decisively.  THEY pat backs and smirk at their dominance. "ONE VOICE," they chant - message betraying their authoritarianism. THEIR technocratic language kills creative thoughts; stifles our sector.  Artists are barely ever mentioned other than under the apparent new descriptors: Micro Enterprises or Micro Businesses.  WHAT?  This is ludicrous.  Another perhaps inevitable consequence of the creeping neoliberalism ushered in with New Labour before becoming cast concrete in the recent "shift" to an all-encompassing "The Creative Industries".  There is something deeply worrying when WE are told by THEM that there MUST be consensus; there MUST be one voice.  A threateningly authoritarian tone.  Who's voice will this "one voice" represent?  What's wrong with many voices rather than the falseness of univocal communication?  For me, disagreement is good - sometimes.  Consensus always favours the strongest, most powerful voices.

So, if the future of North East culture is consensus, I fear that the voices of artists, collectives, small organisations and people interested (or not) in arts and culture will be squashed under the thumb of those who wish to protect their positions of power within our deeply unequal cultural sector.  I'm not sure What Next? (Nationally or Newcastle Gateshead) offers any future potentialities outside of the narrow and nepotistic status quo falsely constructed by New Labour.  THINGS CAN ONLY GET BETTER become THINGS ARE FAR, FAR WORSE!  We know THEIR game: "Partnerships" construct jobs for friends and old acquaintances/ colleagues; monopolistic practices; platitudes for the rest!  Nonsense.  Thinly veiled arrogance. NO!

Let's fight this sh*t.  Now!  We risk a devolved future even less democratic than the totally administered centralist system we unfortunately navigate today...

 

ARTS & CULTURAL WORKERS–STRUGGLE NOW AGAINST CREEPING NEOLIBERALISM

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The art world’s such a fickle place.  Buzzword after buzzword follows business metaphor upon business metaphor.  Right now, the UK arts and cultural world is apparently ‘waking up’ to inequality.  The art world’s unequal THEY say.  We need diversity THEY say.

Academics wonder if this inequity is a class, race, gender thing.  Politicians and policy makers enthusiastically call for fairer opportunities.  Some say: Art for everyone.  DCMS trumpets the need for diversity then appoints an all male, white and middle aged committee.

I’m bemused.  We all knew state and market-driven arts and culture was highly hierarchical, didn’t we?  We know it still is, don’t we?  Even voluntary or the deeply derogatory ‘amateur’ arts often have hierarchies of one sort or another.  So is inequality in arts and culture really as simple as an issue of social class, gender, race, etc?  On many levels, it’s true that social status opens doors or slams them in our faces.  Arts organisations up and down the land are staffed by graduates, led by middle class arts administrators and filled with well-meaning middle (perhaps even upper) class trustees and board members.  Not all.  The bigger the organisation, the more likely that opportunities narrow.  Smaller organisations tend to be more open.  These are, of course, generalisations.

But big London and national organisations are different.  Their boards are full of wealthy and uber-wealthy people - some are government appointed.  They are sponsored by wealthy banks, hedge funds, etc.  They receive large amounts of state funding.  And now these same organisations and the same people leading them are branching out.  They are setting up all sorts of Creative Industries groups, partnerships and federations.  Others in the field suggest we join them.  Why?  I’m not sure.

THEY ARE ALL THE SAME FEW PEOPLE.  UPPER CLASS BANKERS AND SUPER RICH.  THEY give to the arts of their choice.  They are capitalists.  They are often part of the 1%.  Their calls for greater equality in the arts are hypocritical.

THEY cannot lead the revolution needed to make arts and culture more equal.  THEY do not want to.  Not really.  They are neoliberals.  They band together to create an even more inequitable arts and cultural field.  THEY influence decisions.

People like me are not from their world.  Never will be.  WE see through their nicely presented thin veneers.  WE can only nip at their heels.  Sometimes they like what we do.  Sometimes they tolerate us.  Sometimes they silently squeeze us into line.  Sometimes they quietly attempt to cut us off.  That’s fine.  That’s THEIR game.

But we are many.  Dark matter, as Gregory Sholette often describes those outside of the system.  Only a truly culturally democratic world of arts and culture can begin to offer fairness and equality (or equity) for all.  This means ending deeply entrenched status quos, not tinkering around the edges.

The art world is frightening for people like us.  But we cannot stay quiet.  We must say NO.  We must organise however we see fit.

IF WE TRULY BELIEVE IN EQUALITY IN ARTS AND CULTURE, WE MUST STRUGGLE TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN.

We must unearth the roots of inequality in arts and culture, starting with those in the know and their (in)vested interests.  Just as we must do the same in all areas of our deeply unequal neoliberal societies.

A little reflection on the Culture Action Europe #BeyondTheObvious conference

This week has been hectic.  Research visits in London with Platform London and Ovalhouse Theatre; a participatory art workshop commission for Berwick Visual Arts; working on a lab session about collective working, the commons and ending status-quos for arts organisations that I’m co-delivering in London in November; talking about The New Rules for Public Art with a Scottish artist’s collective; working to continue to develop our work with dot to dot active arts in Blyth; developing new NHS commissions in Cumbria and Northumberland; and attending the Culture Action Europe Beyond the Obvious conference which took place in NewcastleGateshead over the past few days.

This is a very short blog post about my experience at the conference and my hopes for the Beyond the Familiar ‘fringe’ event tomorrow.

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The conference was clearly split between the policy-following institutions and the smaller, more radical factions and artists.  I met a great many radical thinkers, some socially engaged activists, and even some policymakers who seemed to see the need for big changes to the way arts and culture is funded and who it is for.  This was great!

I heard many ‘old-school’ perspectives – a bit of ‘knowledge sharing’ here; a little ‘partnership working’ there’; even the ubiquitous ‘we’re doing this already’ and ‘we’ve always worked like this’.  I rolled my eyes like one of Sendak’s Wild Things.  Over my years of practicing in this field, I developed a proficiency for this.

All was not lost, however, because, even though ‘the great and the good’ reeled off their ‘holistic cases for public investments’ and chanted ‘cultural regeneration’ mantras, the voice of dissent was clear amongst a significant number of the people there.  This was very encouraging.

The session that nailed the distinction between the forces of elitism, instrumentalism, policymaking and institution-building and the guerrilla tactics of those into ‘small’, local, grassroots collective strategic engagement happened earlier today.  In short, the UK What Next? movement was pitted against grassroots political and socially engaged activist movements from Europe (Spain and Croatia).  This was a battle of tea and biscuits versus take-to-the-streets (and Net) protests; polite discussion versus political activism.  The UK’s navel-gazing about ‘how do we get people to understand the arts?’ was exposed for all it’s frailties and limpness.  The activists have the answer: ENGAGE outside of institutions; be grassroots; take art to the people; make art as a people.

These are critical debates that are just not often had in the UK.  Art as social practice is immensely capable of bringing arts to the people – a force for real paradigm shift.  It is anti-elitist, grassroots and political.  People not into art get it because they are a part of it.  The ‘arts leaders’ and policymakers with their top-down approaches do not seem to understand that grassroots, self-organised, collective action offers other, more truly democratic ways to place art and culture back where it belongs – by and of the people.

I look forward to tomorrow…

Time arts & culture put class back on their agendas?

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I’ve been tweeting a bit today about art, privilege, elitism, ‘leaders’, social practice, and more.  The great article about the dominance of privilege in the arts by Nick Cohen in The Guardian yesterday certainly spurred me on.  So did tweets by Emma Bearman and Mar Dixon.  I felt the train of discussion throughout the day developed around common threads.  Ideas about emancipation, democracy, paradigm shifts.  This post attempts to cobble together my responses into a semi-coherent stream of thoughts and sound bites that currently drive me.  Here goes:

 

I think of my practice as ‘space-making’ but never call it that.  Potential, play, not knowing.  People ‘do art’ by taking part.

 

We are grassroots and critical… not radical.  We see social practice as a process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

 

Potentially emancipatory, our work is not Jesus on shipping containers or gimmicky digging for fools gold.

 

We see social practice as dialogic.  We try to create potential spaces where something creative might happen.

 

We’re forced to align our outcomes and measures to those of funders when applying, then make sure we achieve them.

 

People (the public) don’t define outcomes or measures.  Policymakers do.  Elitist and hierarchical.  Outcomes and measures don’t matter to people.

 

Policymakers pop stoppers in their bell jars.  Tie little state-made labels on.  File them away.  Museum objects.  Boxes ticked.

 

Funders like their ‘leaders’ to conform to passed-down policy.  Orchestral, they conduct.  ‘New’: their instrumental composition.

 

Leaders.  Thought Leaders.  Cultural Leaders.  Command and control.  Undemocratic?

 

Missionary, mercenary, mobiliser.  Always suspect.  Power is pervasive.

 

Can leadership every be truly ‘democratic’?  Always elitist.  Never emancipatory.

 

Neoliberal leadership is always evangelical.  They need us to be born again.

 

Leadership of this sort is always for technocratic elites; never publics.

 

Always difficult to challenge. DIY or with others.  Self-organise?

 

Elitism is as endemic in the arts as it is elsewhere.  Time to put class back on the agenda?

 

These are my thoughts.  I’m not a leader.  Not an evangelist.  I see critical theory as offering old-new ways to think about culture, class, power, policy.  New utopias.  Social justice.  A much needed socio-political paradigm shift…

Comments always welcome!

‘Pilots to Practice’–reflections about an ArtWorks PHF participatory arts conference

Yesterday, 9th September 2014, I attended Pilots to Practice at BALTIC – a ArtWorks North East conference about participatory arts.  I presented a PechaKucha entitled above ground level: old as new, new as old – social practice in a post-industrial port (see my previous post below for the presentation).  I also wrote a review of an ArtWorks publication about research into participatory artists’ practice for the #culturalvalue initiative.  I was a bit critical in the review.  I was (apparently) ‘provocative’ in my presentation.  This is my reflection about the day.  (Reflection is, it would appear, very big in participatory arts right now…)

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I’m just going to be brief.  My aim here is to attempt to scratch a niggling itch that developed at this conference.  I’ve felt it before.  It does not go away.  I think it is, in fact, growing…

The itch results from the appropriation of ‘participatory art’ and ‘participation’ by everyone for everything in which people are in some way involved in art.  There is nothing wrong with this.  People can call what they do whatever they want.  Most of the discussions here were about ‘loosely’ participatory, often artist or organisation-led, forms of participatory practice.  There were some nice examples of ‘community art’ used for obliquely political purposes and of anger at the system.  There was a good breakout session that briefly but effectively introduced ‘dialogic practice’.  I tried to be honest and differentiate forms of social practice.  People seemed to like it.  It stimulated a brief discussion about the de-politicisation of socially engaged or community arts practice, which was interesting.  But, nonetheless, the itch crept and crawled around me…

I think the scratchy itch is a product of artists who think social practice is about leading people, pied piper-like, into doing art their way, to their, sometimes seemingly narcissistic agendas; audience members having sudden epiphanies (echoed by the chair’s closing sermon, complete with mock-amens and ironic hallelujahs!); neutral research about the importance for space for artist reflection; a proposed participatory artist network called PALS; over-invested long-term project members hoping for further funding.  I won’t go on.  Scratch.  Scratch.

Don’t get me wrong.  Events like this (and there are many like this) are fascinating.  Stirring me to do my practice differently.  Fascinating for my research.  Initiatives like ArtWorks are, of course, useful.  They won’t change the (arts) world.  They can’t.  There are too many vested interests; too many believers.  My family were (are) evangelists.  I can spot preachers a mile away.  I know ‘preaching to the converted’ when I see it.

My problem is that the preaching is (unlike that of my Grandmother) weak and bland.  Not radical.  Not potentially emancipatory.  Blurry.  Fuzzy.  Safe.  Not a paradigm-shift.  Perhaps subtle elitism?  Rebuilding the ramparts of an old status-quo.  Be honest.  This will not change the world.

When’s the next one?

social practice & social change – my thoughts - an unpublished interview transcript

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This blog post is a transcript of an interview that was never published.  The interviewer asked five questions.  I answered.

 

Can art be an effective way of bringing about social change? If so, any examples? In what ways can it improve people's lives?

There are many in the arts world who believe art can deliver social change. Arts Council England recently published The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: an evidence review (April 2014), an attempt to make the case for art and culture in terms of benefits to the economy, health and wellbeing, society and education. They’re following a trend in arts and culture towards ‘cultural value’ – attempting to measure and evidence the instrumental values; this is similar to their discussion of intrinsic values described in their Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences: a literature review (July 2014). There are many actors involved in the broader cultural value debate including AHRC, The RSA, The University of Warwick Commission, etc. Meanwhile, Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks initiative and AHRC’s Connected Communities are two examples of the many academic collaborations with arts organisations and artists to also investigate the social value of the arts. In short, the debate about art as a vehicle for social change is as vast as it is fluid.

However, it’s not a new debate. Francois Matarasso is perhaps best known for fathering the idea of ‘art as panacea for all society’s ills’ in his influential text Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (1997). His report led to a dearth of New Labour initiatives attempting to use arts and cultural projects as cures for everything from run-down urban streets to the unemployed; from rehabilitating offenders to improving the grades of low-performing inner city school children. New Labour’s promotion of arts and culture as integral to their ‘things can only get better’ utopian dream collided with their embracing of technocratic forms of governance underpinned by a positivist scientific measuring and evidencing of every aspect of society. The resulting target-driven, cost-benefit culture meant that Matarasso was criticised for not producing enough (or any) evidence to underpin the many claims he made for the role of arts and culture as a mechanism for positive social change…

So, here we are in 2014. There’s renewed interest and belief in the power of the arts and culture to be recognised as an effective engine for social change. Not just in the UK, but worldwide. Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a key aspect of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation. The problem with this perspective, for me, is three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby fraught with political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental; beautifully crafted, state-funded tools, imposing the type of soft power that typically underpins neoliberal agendas. Secondly, there is the question of ‘what is social change?’ Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shift. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism. Thirdly, artists, participants, audiences and people who do not engage with the arts are usually not consulted or placed at the heart of policy-making of any kind, including cultural policy. This means that they are often left disenfranchised by cultural policies ‘done to them’, not ‘with and for them’. For me, notions of social justice offers more interesting perspectives about fairness and equality. It leaves space for self-organising, radicalism and reimagining.

In some senses, my answer may seem negative or evasive. It is not. I’m merely voicing my concerns. I am wary of grand narratives, of positivism, of state control… The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state. I also know that people who engage in arts and cultural activities (whether ‘high’ or ‘popular’ culture) on every level gain insight and experience that is essential to living. Everyone is an example.

Do artists have a responsibility to respond to the social issues that people are concerned about?

An interesting question that immediately prompts memories of the old debate about ‘art for arts’ sake’ versus ‘art as social’. Artists respond to whatever intrigues them in whatever way they see fit. This is an essential element of their quasi-autonomous position in our world. In some cases, artists respond directly to political issues as radical activists, whilst other artists respond to social issues in ways that support political positions and policy. Others are happy painting watercolour seaside themes ad infinitum. Nothing wrong with any of this. All are matters of individual choice and circumstance. No artist has a duty to respond to social issues, although because artists are situated within society, their art is always to one degree or another socially constructed.

Anyway, ‘social issues that people are concerned about’ sounds like another grand narrative. What are these issues and who are concerned about them?

What are the most challenging aspects of working in the area of socially engaged art?

Socially engaged art is, for me, a very freeing mode of working with people and art. Social practice often takes place outside of galleries and in public places; its emphasis is on process and experience rather than aesthetics and autonomy. But this way of working creates positives and tensions. It’s a challenge to self-organise with little money; a challenge to not know who will turn up or what might happen; a challenge to not impose (or, more realistically, to minimise) positions of power within the dynamics of a socially engaged intervention so that the participants can develop a process their way. Social practice is about risk and uncertainty. It’s fun to be able to work independently but also a constant struggle. These challenges (and, probably, many more) are what makes the field so liberating for practitioners and (hopefully) participants.

Is there a way that artists can ensure they create meaningful relationships with local communities?

Tough question. Many practitioners, policy-makers and academics tend to believe that meaningful relationships with communities need to be developed slowly and carefully. I believe that short-term grassroots interventions can create ‘meaningful relationships’ (difficult to define) within communities. I also firmly assert that long-term embedding of artists in communities can be dangerous and not necessarily conducive to fostering creative independence within communities. I’ve been accused of ‘parachuting in’ many times – whether the intervention lasted a day or three months. Interestingly, these accusations always come from other local artists and arts organisations, never from local people who take part. This leads me to conceive of the role of the socially engaged artist as always that of ‘outsider’ (unless the person actually lives in the area, in which case, there are a whole load of other problems likely to arise). As outsiders, we must always be aware that we are privileged and that we can only help others find and make new potential spaces in which they may discover something about themselves that they can hopefully feed into their communities. We do this by being open to the new and by being ‘grassroots’ in our approach – never elitist or aloof. We develop close affinities, often in very short periods of time, and hopefully retain memories that remain with us, but we will always leave. We must…

How is socially engaged art perceived in the art world as a whole?

Many see the practice as ‘not art’ or as amateurish or political or radical or as an instrument for soft state control. All these condemnations are, sometimes, undoubtedly true. The field of socially engaged practice as ‘participation’ is broad, spanning everything from face-painting to Occupy. This is both a strength and a weakness. Also, the interdisciplinary nature of some practices means that boundaries are often blurred between art, science, politics, environmentalism, etc., etc. I think this inability to neatly box socially engaged art is exciting for practitioners but threatening for many traditional arts organisations and artists; it is also confusing for many policy-makers and academics. People taking part do not care what we call what we do. We don’t label our work. For participants, we’re us – people who listen and help them do creative stuff, or challenge people to think differently, to think more…

In my view, any attempt to accredit or institutionalise socially engaged art means it’s no longer ‘socially engaged’ but ‘participatory’. It’s socially engaged art’s ability to challenge status quos, even work with others to radically challenge the state, from positions independent from the state that makes the practice interesting and attractive to more and more artists as a viable way of making art with people rather than for organisations.

social practice as ‘expanded field’ or ‘excluded field’

This blog post is explores elements of my doctoral research exploring the question of whether participatory art can support sustainable social change.  It’s taken from some of the writing in the introduction to my second draft literature review…

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Click the image above to see a database of more than 350 socially engaged arts projects.

 

Participatory art is said by many to be a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained.  It also leads to an expanded field in which participatory art may be increasingly separate from social practice.  (This is a BIG question which I will discuss in later posts.)

My starting point here is Creative Time’s Chief Curator and important influencer of US social practice, Nato Thompson’s declaration in Living as Form that socially engaged art ‘is growing and ubiquitous’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 19). But does this statement really reflect the history of this field of practice? If socially engaged art is, as Thompson claims, ‘growing’, in what ways, and to what and whose agendas? Is it really ‘ubiquitous’? Many practitioners in the field may well think otherwise. My literature review attempts to unpick chronologically, from the early 1980s onwards, whether socially engaged art is now virtually omnipresent within today’s art world as Thompson suggests.

The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by policy-makers, critics, academics and large arts institutions. Artists, art workers and smaller collectives and organisations are often disenfranchised and, perhaps as a result, disinterested by attempts to investigate, document, define, regulate and even contest the field.

Researching the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. How does socially engaged art interface with and and reflect upon other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography? Can a further ‘expanded field’ that encompasses critical theory, participatory action research, notions of the carnivalesque, post-development theory, permaculture, and more, lead to fruitful routes to new insights about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change?

All of this is important for social practice.  It can help to positively (re)define social practice – perhaps raise it’s profile in the arts.  It can also provide a mechanism for those wishing to regulate and professionalise the practice.  Research can also help maintain, even expand, independent practice, activism and radicalism – forming new ways for individual practitioners to work together to resist attempts to institutionalise the field (or certain elements within the ‘expanded field’).  Nonetheless, research (mine very much included) can exclude the very artists, practitioners, workers and small/ embryonic organisations that form the heart of the field of social practice.  It can also exclude participants and audiences.  This is something I am keen to try to address.  I do not really know how to avoid exclusion but I think I know exclusion when I see it…

Hurrah, the Culture is Finished!

This mini-essay was first published on the #culturalvalue initiative website on 5th January 2014.  I’m reblogging it here with their introduction.

Stephen’s witty and well researched mini-essay contribution to The #culturalvalue Initiative originated in a lively twitter conversation that followed the publication of Daniel Allington’s guest post, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective in early December 2013. The conversation started off as a debate on the merits of Bourdieu’s work in pushing forward the cultural value debate and soon broadened to the relative merits of different disciplinary approaches. I was fascinated by the exchange between Stephen and Daniel, but it soon became apparent that it was more complex than a twitter debate could cope with. So, I invited Stephen to write a short guest post response to Daniel’s piece so that interesting conversation could continue on this site. This would allow to keep a permanent record of it and to facilitate a wider participation in the discussion. As it is often the case when reflecting on complex matters, Stephen’s rejoinder to Daniel’s post has developed into a free-standing and rich longer piece of writing in its own right, and the result is the latest offering in our mini-essays series! In the dialogical spirit in which this piece was conceived, I hope readers will enage in the debate via the comments facility, but, if you need more room for your thoughts, just get in touch!

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John Heartfield, Hurrah, the Butter is Finished!, cover for AIZ, Photomontage, December 19th 1935.

Reproduction, appropriation, new narratives, and opposition to hegemonies: techniques art has used to challenge the mass-produced cultural propaganda of fascism, late imperialistic capitalism and outmoded intrinsically conservative, individualistic and modernist beliefs about autonomy. This type of avant-garde approach had real cultural importance and it was dangerous. Mass-produced counterpropaganda threatens governments by challenging policy; by using the very tools of mass-marketing, it challenges the markets, exposing the shallow reproduction of consumerist messages.

This type of art is one example that may offer a different way to think about artistic practice and aesthetics, production and distribution, etc.; that may lead to alternative notions of “cultural value” – however that slippery term might be defined[1]. This essay is not about reviving modernist debates about “art-for-art’s sake”[2], misreading and decontextualising Bourdieu’s structuralism[3], heroic artists apparently driven to create work to earn ‘the esteem of fellow producers’ by ‘deeply believing’ in “cultural value”, network analyses and diagrams, or circular arguments about the “intrinsically cultural” value of “culture”.[4] Rather, this essay attempts to re-situate contemporary arts practices, particularly those that acknowledge art’s role as ‘a social product’ that ‘always encodes values and ideology’,[5] at the heart of current debate about “cultural value”.[6]

The arts are about audiences but also about participation through social engaging activities; about artists who, on the whole, struggle to make a living and often care greatly about the communities they are part of; about arts organisations (big and small) and their eternal struggle to convince politicians and economists of their multifarious values that extend well beyond financial return on investment, evidencing impact, missions, models, evaluation, etc.; but they are also about the production of radical anti-hegemonic thinking and challenging, rather than conforming to, state sponsored social agendas. Twenty-first century art is, like every aspect of our societies, in turmoil. Postmodernism makes it difficult for art to avoid negating itself and find meaning in many of its practices; political and economic interventions (including “instrumentalism” – defensive or otherwise)[7] encourage the arts to conform to policies that are predominantly not about art or participants or artists or social change or communities; in-vogue (yet, from many business perspectives, out-dated) “governance” models that aim to minimise risk and support “resilience” are effectively imposed upon arts organisations and even artists by funders and policy makers; we are all encouraged to become “self-sustaining” and market-oriented; not to mention philanthropy, austerity, consumerism, popularism, etc. etc. And whilst fairness is desperately needed across every area of arts and culture, now is definitely not the time to argue reductively that we should conceive solely of ‘culture as an economic activity’.[8]

clip_image004

Michel Ell, Des Kaisers neue Kleider, Woodcut, 1923.

The current dominant economic-driven narrative for the arts is a lot like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and we must avoid a situation where “cultural value” (indeed all elements of arts and culture) becomes ‘the most exquisite cloth imaginable’ and those who cannot see it are either ‘unfit for post’ or ‘inadmissibly stupid’.[9] We all know that arts experiences cut from an unravelling economic cloth will be divisive and limp and that value-based investment policy may even lead to our measuring ourselves out of existence. But we can’t pretend to embrace this state imposed fallacy. We must play the innocent child and shout, ‘He doesn’t have anything on!’[10] The Emperor (state) will still, no doubt, continue his procession, prouder than ever, but will probably wear a different suit next time. If everyone stands quiet, it is quite possible that arts and culture will finally be subsumed by aesthetic and commodity production in a “return of the aesthetic” that, when ‘the aesthetic (and even culture as such) is necessarily blurred or lost altogether’, will also signal its end.[11]

All is not lost for the arts and culture. The arts market is flourishing like Ragwort on overgrazed pasture, fertilised by shallow aesthetic surplus value, it has ‘attained complete autonomy, completely cut off from the real economy of value’.[12] The arts market is the epitome of cynical postmodern consumerism and the cult of celebrity; it reviles “popularism” because populist art is unpretentious, encourages participation, is not a commodity and does not deify “experts”.[13] And herein lies three challenges to “cultural value” debates, future policy decisions and the ways many existing arts organisations work:

· Pay full attention to socially engaged art practice, artists and the importance of participation. At present, these are barely mentioned. Perhaps because this practice may be ‘too useful and therefore too much of a departure from the art-for-art’s-sake norm’, it is not considered as “art” by some.[14] But the ‘lens of validation’ is opening to participatory practices that previously ‘were tolerated on the margins or held outside the narratives of power in the art process.’[15]

· Understand the important role for “critical postmodernism” from the perspectives of both practice and theory. Bürger’s notion of the antiaesthetic is inherently participatory and challenges ‘the autonomous “institution of art”… to reverse the bourgeois hierarchy of aesthetic exchange-value and use-value… [by replacing] originality with technical reproduction’. This approach does not purport to transmit exceptional knowledge. It is utilitarian, contextualising art as ‘social’.[16] We need a postmodernism of resistance that heightens ‘the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art’.[17]

· Reimagine “sustainability” of arts and cultural practice and institutions. There are many who see sustainability as maintaining the status quo and preserving the big organisations at the expense of the small; big exhibitions, shows, events instead of small, grassroots initiatives that develop creative self-expression of people in communities most in need. As Diane Ragsdale recently said, ‘The arts are here to say, “We see you. We see this community. We see that for every one person that’s doing OK one person in this community is suffering. We do not exist exclusively for those that are doing OK. We exist for everyone. We exist for you.”’[18] All parts of the arts “ecosystem” must be sustained but sometimes this involves an ‘unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die’.[19] We must decide whether public funding should be redirected towards those who need it most, perhaps at the expense of the elitist institutions.

Hopefully, this essay offers something to the “cultural value” debate. It is a polemic. It is meant that way. It seeks to try and explain why artists and some arts organisations feel a bit detached from discussions about policy. It aims to show that there are areas and, more importantly, people and communities that we must not neglect when “valuing” the arts and culture and deciding how and what we “invest” in.

We must support and value art that is truly useful and engaging; encouraging “non-artists” to participate in and lead future arts projects that add new value to the lives of people and communities; and artists who are also able to fulfil the roles of mentors, activists and educators.[20] We must ‘reconnect art and lived experience as social process’,[21] ensuring that ‘[s]ocial concerns are addressed through the creative process, rather than art being an instrument of social policy and a solution to deep-rooted social problems.’[22] This way of perceiving participation in socially engaged arts ‘involves a significant shift from objects to relationships’;[23] it creates a radical space separate from consumerism and the arts market ‘in which the paradigm of social consciousness replaces that of individual genius.’[24] This is socially engaged practice inspired by critical postmodernist resistance that, as Dick Hebdige explains, ‘can help us rediscover the power that resides in little things, in disregarded details, in aphorism (miniaturised truths), in metaphor, allusion, in images and image-streams’.[25] We must sustain the “arts ecosystem” by allowing some old wood to burn in small fires; a process of renewal. We must be wary of economic arguments about growth and instead proudly sing songs about our role as socially engaged artists and keeping helping people write new stories – their stories – because as Diane Ragsdale honestly said: ‘We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people’s eyes to truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty.’[26]

This essay was supposed to be 800 words long. It isn’t. But, sometimes, you must expand boundaries to enable participation in open debate.

Bibliography

Allington, Daniel, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

Andersen, Hans Christian, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 [1837]

Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005

Beasley-Murray, Jon, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000

Belfiore, Eleonora, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf

Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 [1936]

Buchloh, Benjamin H.D., ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011

Gablik, Suzi, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984

Gablik, Suzi, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992

Hebdige, Dick, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992

Huyssen, Andreas, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

Jameson, Fredric, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998

Matarasso, Francois, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/

McGonagle, Declan, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007

O’Brien, Dave, Is 'creativity' arts policy's big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake

Ragsdale, Diane, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013 http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf

Reiss, Vivienne, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007

Stallabrass, Julian, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf

Wolff, Janet, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993


[1] For more on the difficulty of defining “cultural value”, see Francois Matarasso, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/

[2] “Art-for-art’s-sake” claims “true” (or “high”) art should only be valued for its intrinsic qualities and be completely separate from any moral, utilitarian and educational functions: a modernist and elitist perspective that typifies the discourse of white, middle-class men, notions of beauty, class, superiority, etc. and culminates, as Walter Benjamin suggested, in the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ of fascism - see Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 [1936], p.38.

[3] For more on Bourdieu’s problematic term “cultural capital” and its inadequate account of the accumulation of surplus and therefore themes relating to wealth, profit and exploitation, see Jon Beasley-Murray, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000, pp.100-116

[4] Daniel Allington, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

[5] Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993, p.1.

[6] There are three prominent platforms for discussion and research about “cultural value” in the UK at the moment. They all have different definitions of the term and claim to have (slightly?) different agendas. The AHRC Cultural Value Project (http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funded-Research/Funded-themes-and-programmes/Cultural-Value-Project/Pages/default.aspx) aims to investigate and evaluate cultural experience and engagement; The #culturalvalue Initiative (http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2012/08/30/cultural-value-a-central-issue-for-the-cultural-policy-community/) seeks, through open debate, to reinstate the voices and values of the humanities and social sciences in the face of overwhelming drives towards discourses of economic value; and the recently instigated Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture/) will investigate culture’s “DNA”, using “ecosystem” as a metaphor, so they suggest how best to “invest” in all forms of culture. Artists to not tend to often play significant roles in these discussions. “Policy”, with all its many heads, usually dominates.

[7] For more on instrumentalism in the arts see, for example, Eleonora Belfiore, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf

[8] Dave O’Brien, Is 'creativity' arts policy's big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake

[9] Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 [1837], p.65.

[10] Ibid., p.71.

[11] Fredric Jameson, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998, p.111.

[12] Jean Baudrillard, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005, p.57.

[13] Julian Stallabrass, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, p.9. http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf

[14] Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984, p.29.

[15] Declan McGonagle, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, p.6.

[16] Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011, p.25.

[17] Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, pp.336-337.

[18] Diane Ragsdale, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013, p.14. http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf

[19] Ibid., p.7.

[20] Vivienne Reiss, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, pp.10-13.

[21] Declan McGonagle, Op. Cit., p.6.

[22] Vivienne Reiss, Op. Cit., p.17.

[23] Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992, p.7.

[24] Ibid., p.114.

[25] Dick Hebdige, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992, p.340.

[26] Diane Ragsdale, Op. Cit., p.14.